Entertaining Mr Sloane, Trafalgar Studio 1, London

Mathew Horne, best known as the front half of television sitcom couple Gavin and Stacey, isn’t the most vocally nuanced of actors onstage. Most of the lines he utters sound quite as deliberate as Joe Orton’s writing of them. But his face is another matter. He has an extensive arsenal of reaction expressions, sometimes simply clocking a double entendre (of which, this being early Orton, there are many), sometimes also noting the ulterior motive behind a proposition. And he does it all without seeming to move a muscle. The face is dominated by those eyes of his: at once wide, piercing and jaded, they give him the look of an owl that has seen too much.

The natural prey of such an owl would be the small field creature that is Imelda Staunton. As Kath, she ushers Horne’s bisexually predatory Sloane in with the play’s opening line, “This is my lounge!”, investing it with altogether too much banal pride and, somehow, a heavy undertow of sexual enticement. “I’ve got long legs,” coos the 5ft-nothing actress and (having already vouchsafed to Sloane that she has no underwear on) essays a brief high kick with a delicious expression, simultaneously full of liberated excitement and shocked censoriousness.

The third wheel of this peculiar carriage is Kath’s brother Ed, a repressed pseudo-military type. Simon Paisley Day offers Sloane encouragement “with me behind you”, and when making an agreement desires “your hand on it”. Richard Bremmer as Kath and Ed’s father looks three parts elderly Eamon de Valera to one of Albert Steptoe.

Although Orton’s first staged play (in 1964), Entertaining Mr Sloane feels in many ways to be the most comprehensive indicator of what he could have achieved had he lived longer. Its attack on sexual hypocrisy has real teeth as well as black humour, there is nevertheless a poignancy to Kath’s ill-articulated desires and even a 21st-century press night audience audibly gasped at the sudden violence in the second half. There is also something chilling about Ed’s casual remark when he and Kath turn the tables on Sloane and force him into a domestic and sexual servitude that will last “not eternally, boy, just a few years”. Nick Bagnall’s production gives the play a full personal service, nudge nudge.

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